A recent study by Abraham, et al., published in the March Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, finds that patients receiving treatment at publicly-funded programs have significantly less access to potentially life-saving substance use disorder (SUD) medications like buprenorphine, disfulfiram, acamprosate, and naltrexone. Buried in the report, however, is the shocking statistic that a full 56.4% of the programs (publicly- or privately-funded) prescribed no medications whatsoever. Clearly, there are a whole lot of consumers not being informed of their full array of choices when it comes to managing their treatment.
The study analyzed nearly 600 treatment programs throughout the country - data originally part of the National Treatment Center Study – and looked for differences in physician access and SUD medication access. The authors found that 10.9% offered access to one medication, while 32.7% offered more than one medication. Fewer than 5% of programs offered access to all of the above medications.
The authors note that nearly 2/3 of all specialty SUD treatment programs in the US are publicly funded, relying on government block grants and state contracts for the money needed to provide treatment, while private funding tends to come from private insurance and self-paying patients.
When divided into publicly-funded and privately-funded categories, private programs were almost 15% more likely to have a physician on-staff and nearly 10% more likely to employ master’s-level counselors. And while publicly-funded treatment programs were almost 14% less likely to prescribe buprenorphine, only 32.5% of all programs offered the medication. Only 20.6% of programs offered disulfiram, 27% offered tablet naltrexone, 27% offered acamprosate, and a slim 13.1% of programs offered injectable naltrexone.
Among other findings, programs with a more professional workforce were positively correlated with the number of SUD medications offered, and programs with a physician on staff were more likely to offer higher numbers of SUD medications than programs with no access to physicians.
These findings beg the question: why are evidence-based practices so rare and why is this tolerated in addiction treatment but not in other professional treatments? (What if over half of American cardiologists prescribed no medications to their patients?) Sure, public programs offer fewer scientifically-supported therapies – but even people who are spending a fortune of their own money are often getting poor care. When patients are not informed of the full array of treatment options, the lack of informed consent becomes an ethical – and likely legal – issue.